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Friday, March 8, 2019


Are you the kind of reader who likes to have a detailed description of the hero or heroine in romance books? What about other secondary characters? And do you feel the same way about characters in books of genres other than western historical romance, or romance in general?

To me, there is a big difference in how much character description is needed in romance novels versus other genres, and here’s why.

When we read romance, we put ourselves in the story, empathizing with both the heroine and the hero. Of course, we need enough description to let us be familiar with them both, but this might be a case of “less” being “more.”

In our personal lives, we have preferences in how our romantic “leading men” look, speak, behave, and so on. If our preferences are toward the tall, dark, and handsome hero, it will be hard for us to be vested in a story with a hero who’s short, fair, and ugly. Or one who has habits we personally don’t find attractive.

I knew a woman who didn’t like blond heroes. If he had blond hair on the cover, she’d color it brown or black with a marker. In the book, if “blond” was mentioned, she’d mark through it and write whatever color of hair she’d decided he needed. I asked her about the heroines. “They’re all me,” she answered. “I don’t pay attention to their descriptions.”

It made me wonder how many others felt this way.

Stephen King had mentioned at one time in his book ON WRITING that “description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

And in genres other than romance, character description is different and maybe more important, because the reader doesn’t have any preconceived expectations of the story, such as romance readers do.

When I taught creative writing classes, this description was one I used to illustrate how so much could be packed in to a short amount of words without being an info dump.
This is the beginning of St. Agnes’ Stand, by Thomas Eidson, who also wrote The Missing. Take a look:

He was hurt and riding cautiously. Thoughts not quite grasped made him uneasy, and he listened for an errant sound in the hot wind. His eyes were narrowed—searching for a broken leaf, a freshly turned rock, anything from which he could make some sense of his vague uneasiness. Nothing. The desert seemed right, but wasn’t somehow. He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. A tumbleweed was bouncing in front of the wild assaults from the wind. But the trail was empty. He turned back and sat, listening.

Over six feet and carrying two hundred pounds, Nat Swanson didn’t disturb easy, but this morning he was edgy. His hat brim was pulled low, casting his face in shadow. The intense heat and the wind were playing with the air, making it warp and shimmer over the land. He forced himself to peer through it, knowing he wouldn’t get a second chance if he missed a sheen off sweating skin or the straight line of a gun barrel among branches.

And then this, a couple of paragraphs down:

He had been running for a week, and he was light on sleep and heavy on dust and too ready for trouble. He’d killed a man in a West Texas town he’d forgotten the name of—over a woman whose name he’d never known. He hadn’t wanted the woman or the killing. Nor had he wanted the hole in his thigh. What he did want was to get to California, and that’s where he was headed. Buttoned in his shirt pocket was a deed for a Santa Barbara ranch. Perhaps a younger man would have run longer and harder before turning to fight and maybe die; but Nat Swanson was thirty-five years that summer, old for the trail, and he had run as far as he was going to run.

I absolutely love this. Can you feel that you’re right there with Nat Swanson as he’s riding? There are no wasted words, and this is just such an eloquent, masterful description of not only Nat, but the situation and the physical place he’s in as well as the dilemma he’s faced with.

Another excellent way of describing a character and setting the scene at the same time is from another character’s POV. This passage is from Jack Schaefer’s iconic classic, Shane—from the eyes of Bobby Starrett—when Shane first rides into his life.

This is just the very beginning of the book—there is more physical description of Shane a few paragraphs later, but I chose this passage because it lets us know what’s going on in a few short sentences—and that is real talent.

He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.

In that clear Wyoming air I could see him plainly, though he was still several miles away. There seemed nothing remarkable about him, just another stray horseman riding up the road toward the cluster of frame buildings that was our town. Then I saw a pair of cowhands, loping past him, stop and stare after him with a curious intentness.

He came steadily on, straight through the town without slackening pace, until he reached the fork a half-mile below our place. One branch turned left across the river ford and on to Luke Fletcher’s big spread. The other bore ahead along the right bank where we homesteaders had pegged our claims in a row up the valley. He hesitated briefly, studying the choice, and moved again steadily on our side.

This is tough, because we’re seeing it through two “lenses”—Bobby is nine years old, and this is what he sees, but it’s filtered by the adult Bobby who’s now telling the story of what happened all those years ago.

In writing the story this way, the reader gets the full impact of experiencing the fears, the situation brings, the joy of having Shane there, and the anguish of his leaving all through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, with the adult overview that lets us know that Shane was not a hero—but he was to Bobby and those small time settlers who needed one so desperately. Yet, leaving was the only thing he could have done and kept Bobby’s view of him untarnished and intact.

Because we don’t know how the story will end, and we don’t know what to expect, we are learning about Shane’s character right along with Bobby so we are actively looking for details and descriptors the author might give us along the way—it will affect our opinion of Shane and let us know if Bobby is a reliable narrator, and it affects the outcome of the story.

I bring this up because in romance, seldom does the description have such a direct effect on the story itself, unless our main characters have scars, afflictions, or disabilities that might have some direct bearing on the story and its outcome.
So what do you think? Do you like a lot of description and detail about the WHR heroes you read about, or would you rather “fill in the blanks” for yourself?

As far as heroines go, most people I’ve talked to are not as concerned wither physical description (maybe because each person sees herself in the heroine?) but are more concerned with her personality traits—is she likable? Is she determined?

If she is not a fierce match for the hero, the story line is doomed.

And what about our hero? Though he can get away with more “questionable” traits, he has to be endowed with almost superhuman strength to overcome everything that’s thrown his way, and that is description that must be thoroughly detailed—not left to the reader’s interpretation.
(I apologize for the Amazon links being all over the place--I could not get them to "stick" under the book covers.)


  1. It is good to be reminded or learn this pieces of information. I confess, it is not something I've thought about when writing. The characters are so alive in my mind, I sometimes forget others are not seeing what I see. It's then I have to go back and add the small details to make it real. (Sigh) Doris

    1. Doris, I know what you mean. There are times when I have to do that too, but I try to get it down with the story/plot and movement of the action, and then go back and add in the character details here and there. You are not alone!

  2. I think I have a specific genre in which I require or don’t require much description of the main characters. All I ever want is a sketchy description of the characters in the beginning of a story. After that, what is really important for me is dialogue or actions that reveal the intentions of the character, what they treasure, what they won’t tolerate, what they are willing to do for others, what they will sacrifice—or not to achieve their heart’s desire. It’s the person underneath the skin and hair and clothing that speaks to me.
    I have read stories with characters whose descriptions were not what I expected or ran contrary to my imagined image. In those cases, I just move along with my own idea of what the character looks like.
    A thought provoking blog, Cheryl. I had to really think about it before I responded. And I would like to say I have enjoyed the dark haired wounded men in everyone of your stories. Just sayin’…

    1. LOL You know my heart's desire before you ever open my books! LOL Yet, those heroes, while being so similar in general looks, and all very different people in my mind and in my stories. They all have their own reasons for their "issues" and the lives they've chosen. The one I'm working on right now is the bastard son of a wealthy rancher. The baby's mother died in childbirth and the Indian tribe sent word to the father that he needed to come get his baby son. Problem was, he was pretty newly wed and had a legitimate son only three months older than the bastard. So now...he's got to bring home the illegitimate son and ask his wife to raise him and acknowledge his "mistake" which the boy reminds him of daily just by being alive. oh, goodness... The struggles we put them through. LOL Thanks so much for stopping by Sarah! I'm trying to catch up with everything. I have been totally computerless for a week now--both of them bit the dust within 3 days of each other and I just got them both back yesterday.

  3. Interesting blog, Cheryl. Agree that actions and intent is what counts in character.
    One problem for me is when the cover shows a character that isn't in the story. I read a P.Whitney romance once and it had a blonde woman riding on it. I spent the whole novel waiting for that blonde!
    Loved the excerpts you shared. "Shane" partic reminds me of the opening of the film of Laurence of Arabia, the same stark single image of a hero.

    1. Yes, Lindsay! You are so right about that opening of the movie--my dad loved that movie. Must have watched it a million times. So glad you stopped by, and I do agree with you--the cover has GOT to portray characters in the book--I remember when those older covers had all kinds of randomness on them. LOL

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  5. I don't like description dumps when a character is introduced. There was a category romance writer I read years ago who did this and after three books I stopped buying hers. It read like a checklist or fill in the blanks. I love the descriptions in your first example--great writing. Now I'd like to find those books and read them. It's essential the cover reflects the descriptions of the h/h in the book and a strong sense of setting incorporated into the action. And although the villain (in which you excel) has to be an evil match for the hero, the heroine also has to be an equal match to the hero--brave, strong and spirited. I tend to run with a scene then flesh out areas, because that's what editing is for lol. As usual, a great blog, and I'm glad your computers are up and running again. I can't begin thinking the stress that caused you.

    1. Elizabeth, you are so right about the stress with not having ONE computer! I'm a terrible texter--just terrible--hunt and peck. LOL And there's a lot I can't really do on my phone--(It's not the PHONE'S fault, either--)

      I don't like those "checklist" kind of descriptions, either. You really have to be so careful with description. I remember one book I read all the way to about 3/4 of the way through it and THEN discovered that the hero had a mustache (which had never been mentioned for the entire first 3/4 of the book!)Ruined it for me because I didn't imagine him with one. So glad you love my villains. My sister won't read my books because she can't believe I can think up evil people. LOL

      Oh, you SHOULD definitely read both of those books. Shane is such a great classic and I used it for years in my creative writing classes because it was short and easy to use from a teaching standpoint. And most people were familiar with the story, even if they had just seen the movie and not read the book--though the ending is different in the book from the movie and for a good reason!

      In St. Agnes' Stand, I have to say, that book is on my keeper shelf in about 3 formats. LOL I love that story so much and you better have tissues at the end. You will not be disappointed in either of them.

      Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth!

  6. excellent article!! Characteristics are vital to bringing your characters alive, yet you should not slow the pace of the story down to describe in too much detail. Through giving your characters a strong set of traits, looks make them real to the reader. Yet at the same time you have to keep the images faintly fuzzy so the reader fills in details to suit their tastes. I recall reading a Gothic Romance back in their
    heyday, and obviously the author had mad crush on Richard Burton. She committed the sin of not being satisfied with "just enough" description, and went ahead and described her hero as a dead ringer for Richard Burton. Not a fan of Burton, it was jarring and forced me out of the story, as I adjusted to being forced to see the hero as Burton.

    1. Oh, my gosh, Deborah!That would have ruined it for me, too. Any time someone says something so direct about someone "looks just like blah blah" I have to quit reading. LOL It's hard to think that others might not think our "leading man" (movie stars, etc.) are as sexy as we do, and that is a fatal mistake in description, as far as I'm concerned. Not only for that reason but because it pulls a person out of the story when the author says, "Let's just save us all some time and effort--he looked just like Tom Selleck." (or Richard Burton)!

  7. I had never really thought about how to bring the character to life in this way before. So many wonderful tips on how to process building them inside and out.